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Dublin: 17 °C Tuesday 23 July, 2019
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Analysis: Connacht's pack beautifully cohesive to demolish the Scarlets

Pat Lam’s men hammered the Welsh side at scrum and maul.

THE BEST RUGBY teams don’t play in one style and one style alone; they are adaptable and flexible.

That’s one of the reasons Pat Lam hasn’t gone along with the line that Connacht are now an all-running, all-offloading attacking unit. The western province’s head coach has always stressed that he wants his side to be rounded in how they can break teams down.

Eoghan Masterson celebrates a Denis Buckley scores his sides third try Connacht's maul dismantled the Scarlets. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I don’t want to be known as a team that runs everything, a team that kicks everything,” Lam has said. “Our thing is about skill development to ensure that we are able to do whatever it takes to ensure victory.

“You take in conditions, you take in referees, you take in travel, everything. No matter what – if we need to play this way, our tactics are that we’ve got to take this team here on up front, we can do it.

“If we’ve got to go around this team because they defend this way, we can do it.”

Last week, Joe Schmidt argued that his Ireland side attempt to be an adjustable force, citing his admiration for the manner in which New Zealand can break teams down and “smother” them in various different ways.

The Kiwis are best known for the high quality of their handling and footwork across the entire XV – but that is not a tactical approach, rather a base level of individual skill that every other team in the world should aspire to.

The skill development side of Connacht is something we’ve looked at before and the quality of the individual skills has been perhaps the most impressive element of their season so far. But again, that is a core upon which tactics are built.

The way in which Connacht took Munster apart in the opening half of that historic win in Thomond Park perhaps leads us to believe that such an ambitious approach is how Connacht always look to play the game under Lam.

Pat Lam Lam will have taken major pleasure in his pack's performance. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But the real evidence is that Lam’s words about Connacht becoming a side who can adapt their attacking tactics – and their attacking skills – to suit the conditions, the opposition and various other factors are ringing increasingly true.

On Saturday, Lam’s men hammered the Scarlets at the set-piece to win 30-17 and draw level on points with the Welsh region at the top of the Pro12 table.

Masterful mauling

Three of Connacht’s four tries to earn the bonus point came directly from the maul, while the fourth through Rodney Ah You was also built on an initial maul attack that brought Connacht deep into the Scarlets’ 22.

Connacht had a strong maul under previous forwards coach Dan McFarland, while the arrival of Jimmy Duffy in that position this season has seen a continuation of the good work.

Having clearly identified the Scarlets’ maul defence as a weakness, Connacht continually looked to go deep into the corners with penalties against the Welsh region last weekend and the tactics paid off handsomely.

Maul Try 1

Jake Heenan – who has been in strong form since his long-awaited return from injury – was the man to dot down with Connacht’s first mauling effort, but the majority of the credit goes to the men around him.

Captain John Muldoon is particularly important in this score, first by lifting lineout target Aly Muldowney, and then by ‘bracing’ the front of the Connacht maul against the Scarlets’ initial attempts to counter drive.

M Try 1.1

Having decided not to attempt to sack Muldowney upon landing, the Scarlets’ focus is on driving the Connacht maul out towards the touchline, either forcing them over the whitewash or ensuring the home side must move the ball away from the maul.

As we can see above, Muldoon is the first line of resistance against four Scarlets players after bringing Muldowney back to earth. His role is now to brace against the impact of the Welshmen.

M Try 1.2

The initial impact – after Muldowney has transferred the ball to Heenan – actually brings Muldoon’s right knee to deck and if he gives up the fight here and goes fully to ground, the whole Connacht maul is likely to crumble.

Instead, Muldoon fights back up onto his feet as George Naoupu cleverly whips his right leg around the blindside flanker [highlighted in yellow below] and takes the impact of the next counter-driving Scarlets player.

M Try 1.3

Naoupu isn’t attempting to move forward towards the tryline at this point, instead striving to ensure that the right-hand side of Connacht’s maul remains resistant to the Scarlets’ drive and protects the ball.

Indeed, the Connacht pack as a unit isn’t yet attempting to shunt forward. They’re waiting for the crack to appear, the opening into which they can drive their maul.

Maul Try 1.4

With Muldoon, Naoupu, Eoghan Masterson and Muldowney at the front having kept their feet and fought off that initial Scarlets drive, tighthead prop Finlay Bealham has done superb work over on the left side of the Connacht maul to free his teammates to go forward.

Bealham

As we see above, Bealham is the lifter at the front of Muldowney and then moves immediately into a bracing role at the head of the maul.

Scarlets’ tighthead Rhodri Jones engages Bealham and Muldowney, but the Connacht tighthead wrestles him away to the left and out of the maul contest.

With Denis Buckley and Tom McCartney having lended their power in behind Muldowney as Heenan swims to the back of the maul after the transfer from the lock, we can see that the Connacht drive moves immediately into the opening allowed by Bealham’s intervention.

The new Ireland call-up even gets back in to leech onto Heenan as he crosses the whitewash. The ultimate forwards’ try, although Bundee Aki also hammered in to aid the momentum.

Splinter

Connacht’s second maul try featured more excellent cohesive work from a well-drilled pack, but there was a more deliberate and earlier shift of focus point involved this time around.

Maul Try 2

Again, Muldowney is the target after some basic movement in the lineout and he transfers the ball to Heenan as he lands. Having competed in the air, the Scarlets are again in no position to attempt a sack.

The most obvious pointer that Connacht are going to look to shift their drive immediately is the movement of Naoupu, who steps out of the lineout to leave space for the jumping Muldowney, and then latches on to Buckley in front of the ball.

M Try 2.4

That means that when the ball is on the ground and into Heenan’s hands, Connacht already have a spearhead set up in front of the openside flanker, allowing Duffy’s pack to immediately hammer into the space at the front of the initial lineout.

As we see below, hooker McCartney has joined Naoupu and Buckley to form that spearhead.

M Try 2.1

Scarlets’ lock Tom Price swiftly realises what Connacht are doing as Heenan shifts into the lane behind Buckley, Naoupu and McCartney, with Price attempting to get his hands in on the ball to hold it up and force a turnover.

Muldowney reacts superbly to that threat by spinning himself around and binding his right arm over Heenan, blocking Price’s path to the ball.

M Try 2.3

It’s demanding work for Muldowney, but as with the first try this is vital to keep that whole Connacht unit tight and connected, with no seams for desperate Scarlets defenders to break through and hold up the ball.

At the front of the maul, Buckley, Naoupu and McCartney are rampant in powering forward, while Muldoon and Masterson plough in from the rear. Aki again plays the cameo role to ensure the backs can take a bit of the credit too.

Variety

With the Scarlets clearly expecting a throw to the front or middle again, Connacht’s third maul try comes as they opt instead to go to Heenan completely free at the tail, Muldoon showing some excellent movement to get to the lift at the front.

Maul Try 3

Again, Connacht’s cohesion and tightness is superb, their body height is low and they’re patient enough to accept moving a foot backwards before their superior organisation ensures forward momentum.

They actually cope with a good initial drive into rear lifter Masterson’s bracing effort, as the number eight fights to get his torso down underneath Will Boyd. The ever-willing honourary maul member Aki is on hand to aid Buckley in steering the try home.

Scrum dominance

Buckley’s scrummaging has been a strength for some time now, while Bealham’s call-up to the Ireland squad is a testimony to his growth in this area too. Saturday saw that pair in dominant form against a Scarlets front row that truly struggled.

The first maul try from Connacht originated from a scrum penalty, as did the second. Both times, Lam’s men opted immediately for the corner to back their mauling tactics. The scrum and maul in tandem were a relentless source of strength for Connacht.

Scrum Body Shape.2

The excellence of Buckley and Bealham – as well as propping replacements Ah You and Ronan Loughney – was obviously hugely important in the scrum control Connacht enjoyed, but again the effort in this department was spread among the pack.

The above turnover provides us with a fine example of that, as Connacht put on a spectacular eight-man shove to drive right through the Scarlets and create a scoring opportunity.

The props are always the focus point, but Masterson is crucial at the back of the scrum here, dipping low, keeping his two locks tight together and channeling all their power up into the front row.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 3.13.41 p.m.

Muldowney and Naoupu are nice and low too, their backs flat and their shoulders ideally positioned in underneath the buttocks of the front row. The whole scrum – flankers included – is coiled and ready to drive on the same plane as soon as the ball is fed. The results are obvious.

Skills always ready

Connacht’s bonus-point win wasn’t all just about battering the Scarlets into submission at set-piece time and we saw some more moments of quality in their handling and vision at the Sportsground.

Handling 1st Minute

In the very first minute of play, Muldowney, Buckley and McCartney showed off the kind of handling that is becoming typical of this Connacht team to send Aki and Robbie Henshaw bursting into space on the outside edge.

Later in the game, there’s more simple handling from Jack Carty and Aki to free Henshaw down the touchline.

100

As with the first example, this is about Connacht exploiting a narrow Scarlets defence with a minimum of fuss. When your catch and pass is good, you often don’t need a complicated move to get beyond the defensive line.

Connacht’s identification of opportunities continues to improve along with their core handling ability, allowing them to make good decisions on whether to pass or carry themselves.

Below, it’s Carty who spots two prop forwards in the defensive line in front of him and instantly scythes between them.

Carty Vision

Tiernan O’Halloran also bursts past a struggling and slow-reacting Scarlets prop later in the game, but this time on kick return.

TOL Vision

Again, it’s about a Connacht attacker identifying a mismatch and ruthlessly taking advantage to break the defensive line. Sometimes the pass is on, sometimes the carry. Connacht got their decision-making spot on last weekend.

Left side, strong side

There was disappointment among the positives for Connacht in conceding two tries, but the westerners turned up the work rate late in the game to ensure that the Scarlets didn’t get to within losing bonus point territory.

In that regard, the late hit from midfielder Aki was a clear highlight.

Bundee Hit

The read itself from the Kiwi is excellent as he makes a decision to rush up and shut the ball down, though he is helped by the laborious and telegraphed play of the Scarlets.

Aki’s hit is powerful and forces the knock on, but perhaps it’s his reaction that is most encouraging.

Bundee Reaction

Up on his feet, pounding the crest on his chest and delivering high fives all round, Aki sums up the energy that continues to drive Connacht’s season even after a tough run of results over the festive period.

There remains some distance to go in the campaign, but if Connacht can continue to bring the enthusiasm, high skill level, cohesive effort up front and an overall variety in their tactics, then Champions Cup rugby can be secured for next season.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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